The US Is Falling Way Behind in STEM But Kentucky's Powering the Comeback

Feb 2, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Maybe you’re already aware, but the United States isn’t exactly globally competitive in science education. As of 2015, we ranked 24th out of 71 countries included in a major international study. If you’re only concerned with beating out countries like Kazakhstan and Albania, then I've got great news. If you want the U.S. to lead the world in science, a lot needs to change. Compared to the real heavyweights like Singapore, Finland and Hong Kong, the United States lags far behind in science achievement, and that’s bad news for our students. We can do better than that, and we should. A nation’s performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (often just called STEM) is an indicator of its potential for innovation, so it’s really important that our schools are getting it right when it comes to promoting science literacy and technology competency. Fortunately, we’re making steps to promote higher achievement in STEM, and the leader of the cause is none other than the Bluegrass state.

Making Schools More Accountable For Science

Kentucky is revamping its entire accountability system, but the biggest impact is likely to be felt in science classrooms. This spring marks the first time in several years that science will once again be an assessed subject, which means that students in grades 4, 7 and 11 will take a comprehensive test toward the end of year to measure their proficiency in science. This science test is based on the newest science standards and was developed by Kentucky science teachers themselves, but consists of more thorough questions and a deeper exploration of science concepts than past tests. Kentucky is also building in opportunities for science teachers to implement their own means of testing, in the form of things called through-course tasks, which are teacher-selected assessments or projects that complement whatever content was being taught anyway. The difference is that [pullquote position="right"]they provide meaningful feedback to teachers and administrators about the quality of science teaching that’s going on.[/pullquote] Together, all this means that Kentucky will hold students to high expectations of success in scientific literacy—exactly what we want.

Bringing Computer Science to Another Level

Kentucky has also been pushing for more opportunities in computer science and digital literacy. In a recent interview, Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt spoke openly about the need for these programs. “The United States currently has more than 494,000 unfilled computing jobs, but only 43,000 computer science graduates to fill those jobs,” Pruitt said. “By creating more opportunities for computer science learning, we will reach, keep and engage more students in learning, create a pool of more qualified people to fill existing job openings and stimulate suppressed economic regions of our state by developing a high-tech, skilled workforce.” Kentucky is fulfilling its goals by implementing computer science classes at every level in some districts—elementary, middle and high school. The goal is to add standards for computer science so that students from across the Commonwealth can graduate and feel competent in their computer skills, whether that leads them to further education or a high-paying job.

Working Together

None of these efforts to promote STEM in Kentucky would be successful without meaningful collaboration. Fortunately the commonwealth is building relationships and putting our money where our mouth is to make STEM better. We have amazing support from businesses, organizations and statewide initiatives that all share a common goal: giving Kentucky students access to modern, meaningful STEM learning experiences. For starters, organizations like AdvanceKentucky are teaming up with the Department of Education to train additional computer science teachers, add Advanced Placement (AP) computer science courses for high school students and provide professional development opportunities statewide. One company, Alltech, sponsors annual science competitions for K-12 school students which it uses to help recruit young talent for potential research jobs later on. AllTech is also known for donating science labs to local Kentucky teachers, but that’s not all. After building the labs, they also donate a cool $35,000 so that the teachers can stock them. That kind of collaboration happens when there’s buy-in from everyone involved, and our students’ success in STEM is something we should all rally behind. We’ve got a long road ahead to get where we want to be, but fortunately we may have found our leader in the Bluegrass State.

Garris Stroud

Garris Stroud is an award-winning educator and writer from Greenville, Kentucky whose advocacy and scholarship have been recognized by USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, Education Post, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and The Lexington Herald-Leader. He served as a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow from 2017-2019 and became chair of the organization’s editorial board in 2018. Stroud received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Murray State University and is currently a doctoral student in educational leadership at the University of the Cumberlands, located in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian region. Read more about his work on the Kentucky School Talk and Rural Ed Voices blogs.

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